After ineligible college students got COVID vaccines early, VDH says no more walk-up shots

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- After several ineligible college students got COVID-19 vaccines early, state officials are urging Virginians not to show up to Community Vaccination Centers (CVCs) without an appointment.

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) declined to do an interview on Thursday but the agencies addressed the problem in a joint statement on Wednesday.

“Fluctuating registration numbers in the initial stages of site operations have allowed for walk-ins in some isolated instances, but this is no longer the case,” the statement said.  “Each clinic in Virginia has a plan for how to administer any unused doses at the end of the day, so that eligible individuals are prioritized.”

Brothers Michael and Matthew Spalthoff said they learned a vaccination site in Danville was allowing walk-ins after seeing another student’s tweet on Monday. They hit the road that same afternoon, driving more than two hours from the University of Virginia to get their first dose.

With their grandparents recently hospitalized from COVID-19, the brothers were especially eager to reach immunity.

“We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of lives in America,” Matthew said. “While I’m a young and healthy man, I still wanted to get it so I don’t get sick.”

“When I saw an opportunity like this I said there is no time to waste,” Michael said. “Word spread like wildfire on Monday so by Tuesday and Wednesday people were flocking in herds.”

It’s not clear exactly how many UVA students made the trip to Danville but there were enough to prompt an email from Dean of Students Allen Groves, urging people not to go to CVCs without an official invitation.

“The VDH requested that we share it with you,” the email said, referring to the agency’s latest guidance.

The confusion comes after VDEM emphasized in a press conference earlier this month that these clinics were appointment-only.

“They should not just drive up. We’re using the registration system,” said State Coordinator of Emergency Management Curtis Brown.

Still, when the brothers arrived in Danville without an invitation, they said they were welcomed with open arms.

“They said they were glad for us to come because it was so slow,” Michael said.

“A shot in the arm is better than a shot in the trash,” Matthew said.

Meanwhile, many in Phase 1b, which includes high-risk health conditions, certain frontline essential workers and those over 65, are still struggling to make an appointment.

Currently, FEMA-funded vaccination centers are open in Danville, Portsmouth, Petersburg and Prince William County with more expected to start up in the coming weeks. Brown said these locations were chosen due to their concentration of vulnerable populations.

Dena Potter, a spokesperson for the state’s vaccine roll out, said Danville was the first site to open.

“We went into this knowing we needed to be flexible and learn from each location, and we built in the capability to scale up or down, as needed. We learned that 3,000 doses per day outpaces the current demand in Danville,” Potter said in an email on Thursday.

Potter said, on average, the clinic in Danville is administering about 1,478 shots a day, which is less than half the 3,000 vaccinations the facility is capable of providing.

In a press conference earlier this week, Virginia’s Vaccine Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula suggested that this is part of a larger trend.

Avula said they’re starting to see sign-ups decrease in rural areas whereas population centers, like Fairfax, are struggling to keep up with demand in Phase 1b.

“There are communities where we’re seeing the demand in phase one slow down and so that means we’re going to try to push vaccine to other parts of the state so we can all try to move forward into the general population around the same time,” Avula said on Tuesday.

Potter said walk-ups have been an issue at several vaccine clinics, not just in Danville.

She said contractors running the CVCs have protocols in place to avoid waste and no doses have been thrown out so far.

“The medical team draws vaccine throughout the day based on the number of appointments scheduled, and as the day comes to an end, the number of actual people in line,” Potter said. “If there is a small number of unused doses at the end of the day, each clinic has a plan to use those doses, whether it is to call from a waiting list or to vaccinate clinic staff, emergency res ponders or other predetermined groups.”

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